Got a big decision to make and thinking about sleeping on it? A new study suggests that might be a good idea; it found that people did a better job of learning a game when they got some shut-eye afterward.
The research doesn't prove that sleep will help you learn more effectively. But it does provide more evidence that your brain doesn't just rest and dream when you're asleep, said study co-author Rebecca Spencer, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The brain appears to also be reviewing the day's events and processing them, she said. "You put the movie in and you replay it. This says sleep is really adding something, that we shouldn't go with our gut instinct. We should sleep on it," she said.
It may seem obvious that people would perform a task better after getting some sleep. But Spencer said the new study is unique because it looks at people who had a brief chance to learn something and then either slept or stayed awake.
Why sleep is so important
Other sleep research has focused on memory and on what happens when people don't get enough sleep. "Everything falls to pieces when you've been sleep-deprived," she said.
In the study, researchers assigned 54 college students (aged 18-23) to one of two groups. One learned a gambling game in the morning, while the other learned it in the evening, although no one was allowed to learn the trick to beating the game. Then they came back 12 hours later to play the game.
Those who had a chance to get a full night's sleep after learning the game did a better job of figuring out the trick to it. Eighty percent of those who slept figured out the trick to the game, while 40% of those who stayed awake did, Spencer said.
The researchers assigned the game to other groups of students and found that the time of day when they played it didn't affect their performance, boosting the case that sleep was a crucial factor for the first two groups.
What's going on? The brain appears to process what it's learned during sleep, Spencer said. "It's filing it away. And when you file things, you're not just putting them in the file drawer. You're putting them in a real organised fashion, you're filing it next to things."
Problem-solving during sleep
Sleep researcher Michael P. Stryker, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, said the study does have an important limitation: "Is the difference really a gain in performance after sleep because of some kind of 'insight' or 'problem-solving' that happens during sleep, or is it that being awake for 12 hours makes you less able to perform the task?"
Sleep researcher Michael Anch, an associate professor at Saint Louis University, said the study "emphasises the growing awareness of the importance of sleep for optimal cognitive functioning".
"This study is consistent with other studies suggesting that sleep allows you to integrate learned information from various brain regions, which is not allowable by instant decisions," Anch said. "This gives credence to the notion that if you have a decision to make, sleep on it!"
The study appears in the Journal of Sleep Research.
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